Chapter Fourteen


Theo hadn't come straight from Common Grounds, of course; he'd been taken to one of the open portals--he didn't know where--and forced through by Bishop. "No," he said, and stopped Michael as he tried to come closer. "No, not you. He only wants Amelie, and the book, and I want no more innocent blood shed, not yours or mine. Please. Myrnin, I know you can find her. You have the blood tie and I don't. Please find her and bring her. This is not our fight. It's family; it's father and daughter. They should end this, facetoface."

Myrnin stared at him for a long, long moment, and then cocked his head to one side. "You want me to betray her," he said. "Deliver her to her father."

"No, no, I wouldn't ask for that. Only to--to let her know what price there will be. Amelie will come. I know she will."

"She won't," Myrnin said. "I won't let her."

Theo cried out in misery, and Claire bit her lip. "Can't you help him?" she said. "There's got to be a way!"

"Oh, there is," Myrnin said. "There is. But you won't like it, my little Claire. It isn't neat, and it isn't easy. And it will require considerable courage from you, yet again."

"I'll do it!"

"No, you won't," Shane and Michael said, at virtually the same time. Shane continued. "You're barely on your feet, Claire. You don't go anywhere, not without me."

"And me," Michael said.

"Hell," Eve sighed. "I guess that means I have to go, too. Which I may not ever forgive you for, even if I don't die horribly."

Myrnin stared at each of them in turn. "You'd go. All of you." His lips stretched into a crazy, rubberdoll smile. "You are the best toys, you know. I can't imagine how much fun it will be to play with you."

Silence, and then Eve said, "Okay, that was extra creepy, with whipped creepy topping. And this is me, changing my mind."

The glee faded from Myrnin's eyes, replaced with a kind of lost desperation that Claire recognized all too well. "It's coming. Claire, it's coming, I'm afraid. I don't know what to do. I can feel it."

She reached out and took his hand. "I know. Please, try. We need you right now. Can you hold on?"

He nodded, but it was more a convulsive response than confirmation. "In the drawer by the skulls," he said. "One last dose. I hid it. I forgot."

He did that; he hid things and remembered them at odd moments--or never. Claire dashed off to the far end of the room, near where Richard slept, and opened drawer after drawer under the row of skulls he'd nailed to the wall. He'd promised that they were all clinical specimens, not one of them victims of violence. She still didn't altogether believe him.

In the last drawer, shoved behind ancient rolls of parchment and the mounted skeleton of a bat, were two vials, both in brown glass. One, when she pried up the stopper, proved to be red crystals.

The other was silver powder.

She put the vial with silver powder in her pants pocket--careful to use the pocket without a hole in it--and brought the red crystals back to Myrnin. He nodded and slipped the vial into his vest pocket, inside the coat.

"Aren't you going to take them?"

"Not quite yet," he said, which scared the hell out of her, frankly. "I can stay focused a bit longer. I promise."

"So," Michael said, "what's the plan?" "This."

Claire felt the portal snap into place behind her, clear as a lightning strike, and Myrnin grabbed the front of her shirt, swung her around, and threw her violently through the doorway.

She seemed to fall a really, really long time, but she hit the ground and rolled.

She opened her eyes on pitch darkness, smelling rot and old wine.

No.

She knew this place.

She was trying to get up when something else hit her from behind--Shane, from the sound of his angry cursing. She writhed around and slapped a hand over his mouth, which made him stop in midcurse. "Shhhh," she hissed, as softly as she could. Not that their rolling around on the floor hadn't rung the dinner bell loud and clear, of course.

Damn you, Myrnin.

A cold hand encircled her wrist and pulled her away from Shane, and when she hit out at it, she felt a velvet sleeve.

Myrnin. Shane was scrambling to his feet, too.

"Michael, can you see?" Myrnin's voice sounded completely calm.

"Yes." Michael's didn't. At all.

"Then run, damn you! I've got them!"

Myrnin followed his own advice, and Claire's arm was almost yanked from its socket as he dragged her with him. She heard Shane panting on his other side. Her foot came down on something springy, like a body, and she yelped. The sound echoed, and from the darkness on all sides, she heard what sounded like fingers tapping, sliding, coming closer.

Something grabbed her ankle, and this time Claire screamed. It felt like a wire loop, but when she tried to bat at it, she felt fingers, a thin, bony forearm, and nails like talons.

Myrnin skidded to a halt, turned, and stomped. Her ankle came free, and something in the darkness screamed in rage.

"Go!" He roared--not to them, but to Michael, Claire guessed. She saw a flash of something up ahead that wasn't quite light--the portal? That looked like the kind of shimmer it made when it was being activated.

Myrnin let go of her wrist, and shoved her forward.

Once again, she fell. This time, she landed on top of Michael.

Shane fell on top of her, and she gasped for air as all the breath was driven out of her. They squirmed around and separated. Michael pulled Eve to her feet.

"I know this place," Claire said. "This is where Myrnin--"

Myrnin stepped through the portal and slammed it shut, just as Amelie had done not so long ago. "We won't come back here," he said. "Out. Hurry. We don't have much time."

He led the way, long black coat flapping, and Claire had to dig deep to keep up, even with Shane helping her. When he slowed down and started to pick her up, she swatted at him breathlessly. "No, I'll make it!"

He didn't look so sure.

At the end of the stone hallway, they took a left, heading down the dark, paneled hall that Claire remembered, but they passed up the door she remembered as Myrnin's cell, where he'd been chained.

He didn't even slow down.

"Where are we going?" Eve gasped. "Man, I wish I'd worn different shoes--"

She cut herself off as Myrnin stopped at the end of the hallway. There was a massive wooden door there, medieval style with thick, handhammered iron bands, and the Founder's Symbol etched into the old wood.

He hadn't even broken a sweat. Of course. Claire windmilled her arms as she stumbled to a halt, and braced herself against the wall, chest heaving.

"Shouldn't we be armed?" Eve asked. "I mean, for a rescue mission, generally people go armed. I'm just pointing that out."

"I don't like this," Shane said.

Myrnin didn't move his gaze away from Claire. He reached out and took her hand in his. "Do you trust me?" he asked.

"I will if you take your meds," she said.

He shook his head. "I can't. I have my reasons, little one. Please. I must have your word."

Shane was shaking his head. Michael wasn't seeming any too confident about this, either, and Eve--Eve looked like she would gladly have run back the other way, if she'd known there was any other choice than going back into that darkness.

"Yes," Claire said.

Myrnin smiled. It was a tired, thin sort of smile, and it had a hint of sadness in it. "Then I should apologize now," he said. "Because I'm about to break that trust most grievously."

He dropped Claire's hand, grabbed Shane by the shirt, and kicked open the door.

He dragged Shane through with him, and the door slammed behind him before any of them could react--even Michael, who hit the wood just an instant later, battering at it. It was built to hold out vampires, Claire realized. And it would hold out Michael for a long, long time.

"Shane!" She screamed his name and threw herself against the wood, slamming her hand over and over into the Founder's Symbol. "Shane, no! Myrnin, bring him back. Please, don't do this. Bring him back. . . ." Michael whirled around, facing the other direction. "Stay behind me," he said to Eve and Claire. Claire looked over her shoulder to see doors opening, up and down the hall, as if somebody had pressed a button.

Vampires and humans alike came out, filling the hallway between the three of them, and any possible way out.

Every single one of them had fang marks in their necks, just like the ones in Claire's neck.

Just like the ones in Michael's neck.

There was something about the way he was standing there, so still, so quiet. . . .

And then he walked away, heading for the other vampires.

"Michael!" Eve started to lunge after him, but Claire stopped her.

When Michael reached the first vampire, Claire expected to see some kind of a fight--something--but instead, they just looked at each other, and then the man nodded.

"Welcome," he said, "Brother Michael."

"Welcome," another vampire murmured, and then a human.

When Michael turned around, his eyes had shifted colors, going from sky blue to dark crimson.

"Oh hell," Eve whispered. "This isn't happening. It can't be."

The door opened behind them. On the other side was a big stone hall, something straight out of a castle, and the wooden throne that Claire remembered from the welcome feast was here, sitting up on a stage. It was draped in red velvet.

Sitting on the throne was Mr. Bishop.

"Join us," Bishop said. Claire and Eve looked at each other. Shane was lying on the stone floor, with Myrnin's hand holding him facedown. "Come in, children. There's no point anymore. I've won the night."

Claire felt like she'd stepped off the edge of the world, and everything was just . . . gone. Myrnin wouldn't look at her. He had his head bowed to Bishop.

Eve, after that first look, returned her attention to Michael, who was walking toward them.

It was not the Michael they knew--not at all.

"Let Shane go," Claire said. Her voice trembled, but it came out clearly enough. Bishop raised one finger, and Michael lunged forward, grabbed Eve by the throat, and pulled her close to him with his fangs bared. "No!"

"Don't give me orders, child," Bishop said. "You should be dead by now. I'm almost impressed. Now, rephrase your request. Something with a please."

Claire licked her lips and tasted sweat. "Please," she said. "Please let Shane go. Please don't hurt Eve."

Bishop considered, then nodded. "I don't need the girl," he said. He nodded to Michael, who let Eve go. She backed away, staring at him in disbelief, hands over her throat. "I have what I want. Don't I, Myrnin?"

Myrnin pulled up Shane's shirt. There, stuffed in his waistband at the back, was the book.

No.

Myrnin pulled it free, let Shane up, and walked to Bishop. I'm about to break that trust most grievously, he'd said to Claire. She hadn't believed him until this moment.

"Wait," Myrnin said, as Bishop reached for it. "The bargain was for Theo Goldman's family."

"Who? Oh, yes." He smiled. "They'll be quite safe."

"And unharmed," Myrnin said.

"Are you putting conditions on our little agreement?" Bishop asked. "Very well. They go free, and unharmed. Let all witness that Theo Goldman and his family will take no harm from me or mine, but they are not welcome in Morganville. I will not have them here."

Myrnin inclined his head. He lowered himself to one knee in front of the throne, and lifted the book in both hands over his head, offering it up.

Bishop's fingers closed on it, and he let out a long, rattling sigh. "At last," he said. "At last."

Myrnin rested his forearms across his knee, but didn't try to rise. "You said you also required Amelie. May I suggest an alternative?"

"You may, as I'm in good humor with you at the moment."

"The girl wears Amelie's sigil," he said. "She's the only one in town who wears it in the old way, by the old laws. That makes her no less than a part of Amelie herself, blood for blood."

Claire stopped breathing. It seemed as if every head turned toward her, every pair of eyes stared. Shane started to come toward her.

He never made it.

Michael darted forward and slammed his friend down on the stones, snarling. He held him there. Myrnin rose and came to Claire, offering her his hand in an antique, courtly gesture.

His eyes were still dark, still mostly sane.

And that was why she knew she could never really forgive him, ever again. This wasn't the disease talking.

It was just Myrnin.

"Come," he said. "Trust me, Claire. Please."

She avoided him and walked on her own to the foot of Bishop's throne, staring up at him.

"Well?" she asked. "What are you waiting for? Kill me."

"Kill you?" he repeated, mystified. "Why on earth would I do such a foolish thing? Myrnin is quite right. There's no point in killing you, none at all. I need you to run the machines of Morganville for me. I have already declared that Richard Morrell will oversee the humans. I will allow Myrnin the honor of ruling those vampires who choose to stay in my kingdom and swear fealty to me."

Myrnin bowed slightly, from the waist. "I am, of course, deeply grateful for your favor, my lord."

"One thing," Bishop said. "I'll need Oliver's head."

This time, Myrnin smiled. "I know just where to find it, my lord."

"Then be about your work."

Myrnin gave a bow, flourished with elaborate arm movements, and to Claire's eyes, it was almost mocking.

Almost.

While he was bowing, she heard him whisper, "Do as he says."

And then he was gone, walking away, as if none of it meant anything to him at all.

Eve tried to kick him, but he laughed and avoided her, wagging a finger at her as he did. They watched him skip away down the hall.

Shane said, "Let me up, Michael, or fang me. One or the other."

"No," Bishop said, and snapped his fingers to call Michael off when he snarled. "I may need the boy to control his father. Put them in a cage together."

Shane was hauled up and marched off, but not before he said, "Claire, I'll find you."

"I'll find you first," she said.

Bishop broke the lock on the book that Myrnin had given him, and opened it to flip the pages, as if looking for something in particular. He ripped out a page and pressed the two ends together to make a circle of paper, thickly filled with minute, dark writing. "Put this on your arm," he said, and tossed it to Claire. She hesitated, and he sighed. "Put it on, or one of the many hostages to your good behavior will suffer. Do you understand? Mother, father, friends, acquaintances, complete strangers. You are not Myrnin. Don't try to play his games."

Claire slipped the paper sleeve over her arm, feeling stupid, but she didn't see any alternatives.

The paper felt odd against her skin, and then it sucked in and clung to her like something alive. She panicked and tried to pull it off, but she couldn't get a grip on it, so closely was it sticking to her arm.

After a moment of searing pain, it loosened and slipped off on its own.

As it fluttered to the floor, she saw that the page was blank. Nothing on it at all. The dense writing that had been on it stayed on her arm--no, under the skin, as if she'd been tattooed with it.

And the symbols were moving. It made her ill to watch. She had no idea what it meant, but she could feel something happening inside, something . . .

Her fear faded away. So did her anger.

"Swear loyalty to me," Bishop said. "In the old tongue."

Claire got on her knees and swore, in a language she didn't even know, and not for one moment did she doubt it was the right thing to do. In fact, it made her happy. Glowingly happy. Some part of her was screaming, He's making you do this! but the other parts really didn't care.

"What shall I do with your friends?" he asked her.

"I don't care." She didn't even care that Eve was crying.

"You will, someday. I'll grant you this much: your friend Eve may go. I have absolutely no use for her. I will show I am merciful." Claire shrugged.

"I don't care."

She did, she knew she did, but she couldn't make herself feel it.

"Go," Bishop said, and smiled chillingly at Eve. "Run away. Find Amelie and tell her this: I have taken her town away, and all that she values. Tell her I have the book. If she wants it back, she'll have to come for it herself."

Eve angrily wiped tears from her face, glaring at him. "She'll come. And I'll come with her. You don't own jack. This is our town, and we're going to kick you out if it's the last thing we do."

The assembled vampires all laughed. Bishop said, "Then come. We'll be waiting. Won't we, Claire?" "Yes," she said, and went to sit down on the steps by his feet. "We'll be waiting."

He snapped his fingers. "Then let's begin our celebration, and in the morning, we'll talk about how Morganville will be run from now on. According to my wishes."

The End

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